State puts broadband on hold for rural western Massachusetts

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By Monday, Apr 18 News  10 Comments
Heather Bellow
At a packed town meeting in the tiny Berkshire town of Alford (pop. 494) last August, voters overwhelming approved a plan to borrow $1.6 million to install a broadband network that would reach every household. The proposal assumed that the state, through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, would provide $470,000 of that total.

Great Barrington — Millions in state dollars for a broadband communications infrastructure in central and western Massachusetts, deemed essential for economic development, was locked down by the Baker-Polito administration last month at a time when these rural towns endure inferior, or in some cases, no Internet service, and just as towns were making plans to use their share of that money to either fix the problem themselves or do it through the WiredWest broadband cooperative.

In a letter to towns, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) last month said the reason for the administration’s “pause” was to review the financial and operational feasibility of the agency’s plans to wire up the rest of the state, “to more deeply understand the broadband expansion strategies being proposed” and make sure taxpayer money is well spent on a good sustainable system.

At its special town meeting, Otis also approved the spending of town funds to buildout a high-capacity broadband network. Photo: David Scribner

At its special town meeting, Otis also approved the spending of town funds to buildout a high-capacity broadband network. Photo: David Scribner

This comes after the administration last summer released $19 million of the total $40 million to string fiber optics over “the last mile” across the rest of the state.

The MBI is the management entity that oversees the state’s broadband infrastructure expansion, and is part of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the mission of which is to expand technology for economic development.

Business leaders and local officials say the lack of high speed Internet is stymying economic growth in all sorts of ways. Real estate agents say it is fast becoming a prerequisite to sell homes, for instance, and increasingly it is critical for all kinds of business initiatives, from retaining existing enterprises to attracting clusters of new companies that now commonly rely on access to high capacity Internet service. Fiber optic cables and broadband can be privately installed, but it isn’t cheap.

Jane Iredale, of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, LLC told the Edge her company pays Time Warner Cable $1,825 every month, and Verizon, $154, for high speed Internet.

There is widespread frustration that’s inserted a bit of drama into the quest for broadband in these hills. MBI and WiredWest bickered last year over the 44-town cooperative’s approach and model, and sent a letter to towns telling them they should go it alone, that WiredWest didn’t know what it was doing, and threatened to pull funding from WiredWest towns. There were dicey meetings and heated exchanges.

In the meantime, WiredWest went back to its conceptual model and decided to work on some of MBI’s criticisms, creating a new model that will be unveiled later this week, according to spokesperson Tim Newman. And the state, it appears, is calling a time out to check up on MBI’s work.

One of numerous signs -- this one in New Marlborough -- that appeared last spring and summer in towns underserved by Internet connectivity.

One of numerous signs — this one in New Marlborough — that appeared last spring and summer in towns underserved by Internet connectivity.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) told the Edge he thinks the Baker-Polito administration is being smart to look more closely at MBI, an 8-year-old agency that, while it installed some infrastructure — “the middle mile” — through central and western Massachusetts, still hasn’t gotten the west up and running.

“I applaud the Governor for raising questions,” he said. “We’ve spent a ton of money. But something’s not right here.”

He further said the governor is worried about some of these smaller towns voting to borrow up to $2 million, a necessary add-on to the state money, and pushing their debt ceilings. Other towns, Pignatelli said, shouldn’t be held back. One of those is tiny Alford, population 494, “a very bondable, wealthy” town with a low tax rate, which voted last summer to borrow $1.6 million in order to install and own their own system that would reach every household in town. The town was also counting on getting its share of the MBI funding, $470,000. “They could be the poster child for showing broadband can work in small rural town.”

But Alford got a bit hung up by the administration’s pause. The town’s Municipal Light Plant board reported it had overcome “considerable obstacles” on the way to a fiber network, but had to look into new options because “after several candid discussions with MBI leadership, we have concluded that we cannot count on MBI as a collaborator in the near term, though we still anticipate receiving financial support when the ‘pause’ is lifted.”

The town settled on looking into a “Design/Build/Operate” option, in which it will contract with one company for those three functions.

Great Barrington, while served by cable, is not entitled to last mile funds, and many residents struggle with the inferior service. Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin told the Edge a team from the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology (MassIT) is “helping us pull together a strategy to have the broadband run in our core business district here, using the points where we have the hubs.”

Those hubs will connect to the larger network, once fiber optics are installed, and were placed near Town Hall, the fire station, library and the police department as part of the middle mile work. Tabakin says she’s still gathering information and having meetings with potential vendors and business owners in town. “I think it’s definitely a project that takes time and commitment in terms of coordination, but from a technology perspective, [broadband] is not a barrier here.”

The slow speed can be a problem for businesses that have to connect with world beyond the Berkshires. SubStation Studios owner Robby Baier, for instance, says his Housatonic-based recording studio turns away business “from time to time” because it doesn’t have the capability to have a live connection to producers in Los Angeles and New York City. “We get by OK without it,” he said, adding that if the cost were reasonable he would consider buying it to “speed up file transfer with clients and collaborators…open up business for me to record local theater talent doing voice-overs that need a live connection.” Broadband, he said, “would allow for a producer to listen in on the sessions live.”

Wired West advocate Tim Newman.

Wired West advocate Tim Newman.

Alford-based computer specialist Arthur Dellea started a petition for regional broadband, and in it blames a loss in confidence in WiredWest among some towns as the reason for the administration’s pause.

“Patently false,” Newman says of this charge.

Gov. Baker said in an interview that his administration thought WiredWest was a good idea, but not “financially feasible.”

Newman says the main draw of WiredWest is savings, and that not all towns can afford fiber in the MBI’s “go it alone model.” He further said WiredWest “takes advantage of the well understood economies of scale and shared buying that regionalization offers. Cost per subscriber under the WiredWest’s regional approach will result in lower monthly bills for subscribers. In addition, as a town owned cooperative, towns will have a voice in the decision-making process for operating the network. This is clearly not something private sector providers can be expected to agree to.”

In another vague statement from the East, the Governor said while the administration is committed to finishing the job, it wants to use “a forward-thinking approach to the technology.”

But a recent MBI board meeting saw much talk of wireless technology, something that needs to be studied at an estimated cost of around $400,000, and may soon be obsolete.

Pignatelli, who had a conference call with MBI officials two weeks ago and met with them last week, said the agency was looking at alternative technologies like wireless because it’s “cheaper.” But he says it’s also “shortsighted, outdated, ill conceived” and troublesome given the topography of the Berkshires.

“That’s what’s going to send me through the roof,” he said. “Wireless has not worked in Tyringham, Alford, and I asked MBI and will ask again: ‘If you can show me an area of this community with our topography and density or lack thereof with a legitimate wireless high speed technology, I might buy it.’

A map of western Massachusetts towns belonging to the WiredWest collaborative.

A map of western Massachusetts towns belonging to the WiredWest collaborative.

“We need to build this thing,” he said of fiber. “It is the greatest potential for growth and expansion for the future. Wireless may work fine today, but not in 5 to 10 years. We’ll never have another bite of the apple, so let’s do it right or we are wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Pignatelli said he was “loosing faith with the MBI,” and said he thought part of its problem is that the agency is running out of money to finish the job, “despite towns agreeing to spend $2 million a pop.”

He said all the fussing between MBI and WiredWest should end and the two should work as a team. “There’s a little jealousy going both ways,” he said.

And while what WiredWest has done so far is “amazing,” Pignatelli said, its weakness is the lack of track record among “a bunch of volunteers that hold the towns together.”

And MBI has a track record that isn’t so hot, according to Otis Citizens for Connectivity, which in an open letter to Gov. Baker asked, “What exactly have they been doing for the last eight years?”

The group, they wrote, is “deeply concerned over the continuing delays, obfuscations, inadequate communication and lack of transparency, that continue to plague such efforts,” and said Berkshire County was being left in the dust with regard to 21st century technology that, combined with the greatest population losses in the state, threatens to make homes in the area “essentially under water and unmarketable.”

The town of Otis decided last year to leave WiredWest, citing numerous reasons why it didn’t need a middleman between it and the MBI.

“Many communities have followed MBI’s lead and held up their end of the deal and voted dearly earned local tax dollars to help fund the project,” the Otis group said. “MBI has not followed suit, delaying the start of many make-ready projects.”

Otis asks that the Gov. Baker “release this logjam” and give a date for an end to the pause, up-to-date estimates to get towns up and running, and to begin working immediately with other state agencies and towns.

In an email to The Edge Mass Technology Collaborative Chief of Staff Maeghan Welford wrote that the MBI is “committed to the next step” in bringing broadband to unserved towns. (MBI spokesperson Brian Noyes is out of the country).

“There are no simple solutions and few, if any, models of regional last-mile publicly-financed networks,” Welford wrote. “We are working with partners including the Baker-Polito Administration to develop plans and policies which help ensure cost effective, financeable and sustainable broadband expansion solutions. Currently, the MBI is analyzing and developing criteria for approving sustainable operating and governance models, reviewing available technologies, including alternative technologies, and reviewing the plans and options for municipal borrowing and broadband project financing, including the exploration of potential federal funding and loan programs. We are also moving ahead with negotiations to expand broadband service in seven partially-served towns.”

Yet many towns feel like the world is moving ahead without them, while the state tries to get its act together.

“We here in the “Golden West” are also part of Massachusetts and the 21st century,” wrote the Otis group. “We have a lot to offer to visitors from the East, out-of-state tourists and second homeowners. But we need the tools, population and entrepreneurs to stay productive and attract and retain all those that can aid in this endeavor.”


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10 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ritch says:

    A tragedy, and a travesty. Thank you for your thorough update on this critical issue.

  2. Ben Greenfield says:

    Very upsetting news and it still isn’t clear what happens the the existing CAIs?

    These are my questions
    If a town can get its own financing together it can utilize the MBI middle mile?
    This is a problem for towns getting funding last mile funding but not the MBI middle mile?

    1. Tim Newman says:

      Ben,

      All of our towns have one or more CAI’s (Community Anchor Institutions). I live in New Marlborough and we have three: Town Hall, the Firehouse, and the LIbrary. (New Marlborough Central School is connected to the SBRSD network.). I would guess that for towns like ours, 3 CAI is a typical number. Town Halls, Police and Fire Stations, Libraries, and Hospitals got wired. I’ll answer your question shortly, but let me first indulge in a bit of history that is, I think, related to our current problem.

      The network that hooked up the CAI’s you’re asking about was build at a cost of about $70 million (if I am remembering correctly). It was planned and construction supervised by MBI with a combination of federal and state money. It is called MassBroadband123 because 123 towns are part of the project (and I recall being told because MB123 was thought to be a catchy name on the grant application to the Federal NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) who ultimately provided $45 million of the cost.

      What is odd (maybe inexplicable might be better) is that of the 123 towns CAI’s that were connected with this money, only about 45 were at that time considered “unserved” (i.e. they lacked broadband). The remainder, including cities like Springfield, Northampton, and Greenfield, (and all the larger towns in the Pioneer Valley and right onRt 7) ) were already fully served by cable (like Sheffield, Great Barrington and Lenox in the Berkshires). Why should we care? Well, because the $45 million of federal had to be matched by, I recall, $25 million of state money. And that state money had been voted by the legislature in 2008 ($40 million in all) to bring broadband to unserved towns (a Patrick administration promise), NOT to towns that already had cable service. In other words, of the $70,000 spent by MBI, most of it went to bring fiber to towns (78 of them, not to mention far bigger towns) that already had damn good connectivity. Why that decision was made back in 2009 or so, I don’t know. But as we sit here today with the broadband project stalled, I can’t help but think that that the money spent to bring fiber to those already served towns was badly spent, and MBI decision was a very bad one. (In concluding this little trip down memory lane, you might be interested to know that MANY of the CAI’s in the biggest towns are not taking service from MassBroadband123 because their existing cable service is cheaper.)

      This isn’t exactly the answer I think you were looking for, but it’s related. What’s happening to the CAI’s? It the big towns mentioned above. Very little. My understanding (not backed up with documentary evidence yet) is that the network is costing AXAI (the network operator) money. It’s a looser because the projected income from CAI’s is vastly less that was project. Less, because faulty assumltions were made about the levels of service towns would take. The service is very expensive compared to municipal network pricing nationwide. For example, our town is taking 10MB for town hall and the firehouse.

      As you may know, the network was not designed to connect to homes and businesses. There is not a sufficient number of strand of fiber and the design (topology) was not designed with last mile connections as an objective. So if we are to connect homes and businesses, it will require the last mile builder (WiredWest or whoever) in each town, string fiber from the town’s PoP (point of presence – ours in the the Firehouse) up and down every road in town – and much of that will be backtracking over the fiber MBI has already string but is not available for last mile.

      Don’t know if this is what you asked. but it is worth knowing how our tax dollars are being spent.

      Tim Newman
      Southfield, MA

      1. Tim Newman says:

        My apologies for the typos, in particular in the 4th paragraph I said:

        ” … In other words, of the $70,000 spent by MBI, most of it went to bring fiber to towns (78 of them, not to mention far bigger towns) that already had damn good connectivity. Should read: “In other words, of the $70 million spent by MBI, most of it went to bring fiber to towns (78 of them, not to mention far bigger towns) that already had damn good connectivity.”

  3. Susan Pettee, Great Barrington, MA says:

    How frustrating! Excellent report on a discouraging situation. The cables are already on our street, put there by Verizon, but whatever else there needs to be for FiOs to work is on hold. I don’t feel personally inconvenienced, but this has to be bad for the town’s and the whole area’s economic development.

  4. Brian Tobin says:

    The town of Mount Washington has spent a lot of time and effort on developing a technically feasible, robust plan to build the last mile of a fiber optic network to all residences that desire reliable broadband service. We are ready to move forward with construction, subject to voter approval at a special town meeting. The “pause” raised by the Baker administration means that the allocation of state funds from MBI that we are eligible for is being inexcusably delayed and is unacceptable. Is anyone at the state level listening?

  5. Brian says:

    The town of Mount Washington has spent a lot of time and effort on developing a technically feasible, robust plan to build the last mile of a fiber optic network to all residences that desire reliable broadband service. We are ready to move forward with construction, subject to voter approval at a special town meeting. The “pause” raised by the Baker administration means that the allocation of state funds from MBI that we are eligible for is being inexcusably delayed and is unacceptable. Is anyone at the state level listening?

  6. Ben Greenfield says:

    Tim,

    I have been following the story broadband since I moved to the berkshires and have about 2 years into planning a network for our “over served” town. I don’t really see a problem with what MBI did or how they did it, other then the last mile issue that clearly isn’t happening quickly but progress is being made. i.e. Levereett, Mt. Washington, and at least Alfrod are making progress.

    What I’m really asking is that is it only MBI money that is held up or is the access to the middle mile also on hold.

    I also dispute that their is not sufficient fiber to extend the last mile to every home and business that has CAIs in their town.

    1. Tim Newman says:

      Ben,
      Sorry if what I said was unclear. Yes towns that have CAI’s can connect to the MB123 network. The distinction I was trying to make is that the actual middle mile fibers currently on the poles are insufficient to connect all the homes and businesses. The way a last mile network would be designed and built calls for the town network to originate at the location of the town’s Point of Presence (PoP). This is a switch that is the point of connection to the MB123 network and will be found in one of the town CAI buildings (in my town it’s the firehouse). The town network will run fiber from that switch along poles on every road.

      As I understand it, the hold up is strictly a financial matter. Towns will not get access the 1/3 of build out money MBI is holding until they develop a new plan that is satisfactory to Baker administration. I believe this includes Alford and Mt Washington, though that seems unfair.

      FYI, Leverett voted the full cost of building their network several years ago. This was done without state money because the stated before that money was even available. Their network is complete, and has been up and running for nearly a year. They were eventually reimbursed their “share” by MBI.

      Yes, a little progress is being made but for the vast majority –over 30 towns–there as been no progress and no plan. We’re in an extended “pause” with no information about what to expect or even when to expect it. I don’t think you can reasonably call the MBI program effective based on the results to date. After all, they have been at it for 8 years.

  7. Stephen L .Cohen says:

    The technical details of how to accomplish the provision of high speed internet to the Berkshires may be illuminating to some, but misses the point. It has been years, and there is still no internet. Perhaps Boston should realize that this service is a requirement in this day and age and they should pick up the costs of providing the service through a TVA style entity. Just as it was uneconomic for electricity to be provided to rural Appalachia in the twenties, it is uneconomic for private companies to provide broadband to the small population. This is where government must step in, if not, our economy will not be competitive, and our home values will deteriorate. Waiting ten years or more for this service is unconscionable, and a complete abrogation by the state of its responsibility to those of us who live here. We paid for the grossly incompetently managed “big dig” and it is now time for our legislators to do the right thing for our communities, even though our population is so small we are virtually under the radar politically.
    The dithering has to stop, or it will soon be twenty years of inactivity and stifled growth.

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